Election Year Brings New Efforts to Regulate Search Engine Data Collection

New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has introduced a bill aimed at regulating the way search engines collect private data of its users. Similarly, in Connecticut, the General Law Committee of the State Assembly has a bill that seeks to tighten data collection rules on companies that serve ads on sites they do not own.

State laws attempting to restrict data collection are nothing new. Both Alaska and Utah have laws on the books preventing adware from serving up targeted ads based on the behavior of searches, specifically on trademarked keywords. And California State Senator Liz Figueroa tried to stop Google from placing targeted ads in Gmail based on email content.

Eric Goldman, Assistant Professor, Santa Clara University School of Law, said that states don’t really have the authority to pass these laws because they involve interstate commerce. Instead, the federal government should have jurisdiction over these matters.

“My experience is that state legislators usually ignore any dormant commerce clause defects in their laws and let the courts strike down the laws; after all, I’m guessing no politician was ever voted out for passing a law that courts later declared unconstitutional.”

Privacy expert Alan Chapell, of Chapell & Associates, said that state bills that are passed still have an effect on consumers nationwide. He cited California SB 1386, which requires companies to inform California citizens when a data security breach has occurred. Chapell points out that if citizens of another state find out about a breach affecting California citizens, they’re naturally going to worry about their own data.

But the kind of data search engines collect is not necessarily personal information such as addresses and telephone numbers. Search engines are primarily interested in what people are searching for, and providing them with ads and search results according to historical searches. Because consumers and even politicians don’t truly understand how search engines work, many of these state bills are “attempts by lawmakers to get their name in the news,” according to Chapell.

Assemblyman Brodsky is up for re-election this year. Meanwhile, companies are lobbying Brodsky to preserve their best interests.

According to the New York Times, Microsoft supports – and seeks to expand – the New York bill, drafted by State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. The bill would force search engines to get permission from users before displaying ads targeted towards their search behavior.

Microsoft’s intentions seem all too clear, with recent declarations by Steve Ballmer to catch Google in the search game. Yahoo sees things differently, and sent lobbyists to meet with Brodsky, apparently to express their opposition. There are obvious implications for how this will affect any merger of the two.

The software giant’s ambition fails to address the question at the root of internet privacy battles: “Who owns the data?” While there are no clear answers, one thing is certain. Many a politician and businessman will attempt to climb their career ladders waging a battle in these murky waters.

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